The Prodigy

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Chapter 2

The next morning I struggle to eat my cereal, but my appetite is less than zero. It is the first day at the Institute and I don’t want to admit how nervous I am, even to myself. For the first time in my life, there is the possibility of failure, on multiple levels. This time I will not only be judged solely on intelligence, but also on relationship and leadership skills. Not to mention my ability to conceal some deep family secrets that I only just discovered the night before. The revelations made by my mother resulted in a very restless sleep.

Mom comes into the kitchen. It is the first time I have seen her wear a suit. It makes her look formidable. I look closer. Not only is she wearing a suit, but makeup. I’ve always thought my mother looked pretty, but today she looks stunning. I start to ask “why the change in attire?”, but stop myself. The secrets between us are already creating awkward moments and I resent it. My mom is the only person in the world I have ever felt truly comfortable with and our camaraderie has been diminished. I feel as if I am living in a fishbowl.

“Are you nervous Analia?” Mom asks as she makes toast.

“A little. It just feels like I am back in preschool going to work with my mom. I actually like going to work with you, I just don’t want anyone to see.”

Mom laughs and kisses my temple.“I understand my little hypocrite.”

I pour myself another cup of coffee and let the rivulets of cream drop into my cup. Coffee represents the first adult act I committed in the world. The act was trivial in comparison to other real acts of adulthood. But for years, it was the only link I had to my other lab partners. I could take a coffee break with them, but never go out for a drink after work or make plans for a weekend.

“Sorry to cramp your style.” Mom replies. “I am a little nervous too. This city and this job in particular, can intimidate you, if you let it. Unlike home, where I could always escape to the beauty of the garden, there is no room for retreat here.” Mom grabs her keys and phone. “If we have time after work, let’s get a second set of keys made up for you. We also definitely need to get some groceries tonight. We cannot subsist on coffee and toast.”

I smile. Mom never approved of me drinking coffee at such a young age. “Do you know what your new job will be?” I ask.

“All I know is that I will be a deputy assistant to the vice president of corporate public affairs. That is why I dressed in this uniform. It is a requirement of the job. I’m not sure I am cut out for this, but we’ll see.”

I scrutinize my mother. The timid woman I thought was my mom no longer exists, if she ever did at all. It’s funny how often strangers can know a person better than their loved ones. It could be because we project onto a person what we need them to be rather than seeing them for who they really are. It isn’t just the clothing or makeup, but the projection of inner strength that makes Mom look Amazonian. “I think you look great. Do you think you can teach me how to apply makeup?”

Mom stops in surprise. “Sure. I should have done it a few years ago but biomed engineering always seemed to interfere, and I guess it just never came up. Now that you are out of college we should try to do more normal mother- daughter things. Although I am not sure what defines normal for us. Why don’t we start with a little lip gloss and mascara for now?”

I laugh. “You’re probably right. We teeter on the line of eccentricity.” I pick up my backpack, turn to my mother and let her apply the makeup. When I look in the mirror, I am startled. It’s strange how a small change affects one’s appearance. If only I had a full-face mask to conceal my emotions in the coming days, it might boost my self-confidence.

Mom studies my reflection in the hall mirror. “Do you like it?” I nod with a big smile. Mom smiles in return. “Good. Let’s get moving. Can’t be late on the first day.”

The two of us descend in the elevator and nod hello to George, our concierge, or rather our minder. On second thought, minder actually seems benign. George represents something more sinister. Walking out the door of our building, and more specifically away from George, feels momentarily liberating. We head over to the train station and catch the loop going north.

The building that houses the Lucas Institute is titanic in size. The founders, who are still relatively young, obviously believed size imparts credibility when they built it. Most followers of Freud would have a field day analyzing their psyches. I am still intimidated, however, at the prospect of facing the people who destroyed my family.

Conveniently, the train deposits us at the entrance. If nothing else, the Lucas Institute is very efficient and obviously has great influence on urban planning in the city. We start walking up the tiny hundred steps to the entrance. Above the front entrance is a sign; “In Science We Trust.” They must have copied it off the old dollar bill. Whoever crafted that sign only reinforces the general population’s belief that most science nerds lack creativity.

I point to the sign as I whisper to my mother. “Not terribly original.”

Mom replies sarcastically, “No it isn’t. They believe in science as a means to money and power.”

I hesitate at the top of the steps. I need to say goodbye now, but I don’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings. I also don’t want my future coworkers to form the impression that I need my mother to watch over me, even if deep down I like having my mother watch over me.

Mom points to the fountain in front of the entrance. “Analia, let’s meet here at 5:15. I don’t want people to think I need my daughter to take me to work.” She smirks at me and disappears into the front door. Unbelievable. Mom beat me to the punch. There is a certain measure of comfort in someone acknowledging your needs without having to put it into words.

The atrium is cavernous. The ceiling is four stories high and enclosed in glass. It must be luminous at night under a starry sky, but it is scary to even consider being locked in here at night. Last night’s revelations are beyond disturbing. I approach the receptionist who hands me an identification badge without even looking up. I wonder if she is a new robot prototype. I may be aggressively looking for sinister signs, but this place gives me the shivers. A silvery blonde approaches from the elevator doors.

“Analia, my name is Jenny Whitcombe. I am the assistant to the chairman, Katherine Lucas. It is lovely to meet you. Will you follow me, please? We are meeting in the auditorium for orientation, then the new recruits will have a breakfast reception with the heads of the individual labs, and finally you will meet with human resources.” Jenny starts walking towards the elevators and I follow obediently. The first day of work, like school, is a combination of excitement and death-defying tedium. The tedium is already setting in.

On cue, the elevators open as soon as we reach them and Jenny pushes the button for the basement. “How long have you been working here Jenny?”

Jenny looks surprised at the question. “Not long, only about eight months. Why?”

“Well, you seem very young but appear quite confident. I would have thought you had been here for at least a few years.”

Jenny stops before she opens the doors to the auditorium. “Thank you. The key is to look confident even when you don’t feel it. The scientists here can be very competitive. Don’t let them intimidate you. I read your file. Despite being so young, you are tagged to be the brightest star at this institute. I heard the chairman say that several times. Right now, however, it is time for you to go sit down. Lateness is not tolerated here.” Jenny winks as she opens the doors and points to the middle section. “Just go down to the front and find a seat.”

“Thank you, Jenny.” I walk in. The auditorium rivals the size of the atrium. The Institute’s preoccupation with size obviously extends throughout the building. There are close to one hundred people in the auditorium. They are clustered in the first seven rows. I aim for the end of the eighth row where I can sit rather anonymously.

As soon as I sit down, I hear my name. “Analia, please come sit up front.” I turn and find myself looking into the Nordic-ice eyes of the chairwoman, Dr. Lucas. Her smile does not extend to her eyes. Obviously, her minions cannot determine even minor seating choices. My small rebellion with coffee ceases to have significance. In the next few seconds I will have to show my courage.

I recover quickly and smile politely. “Good morning Dr. Lucas. I am so looking forward to starting my research here. Thank you for the opportunity.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Dr. Lucas replies. “Why don’t you sit there next to my son, Joshua?” She points to a tall man in the second row who is unfortunately too good looking to be taken seriously.

As Katharine Lucas walks up the stairs to the stage, I sit down in the appointed seat and Joshua turns to me. “My apologies. My mother is a very intelligent woman, but she has the emotional range of a toothpick. I am sure you are capable of choosing your own seat. My name is Josh, by the way.” His eyes are sea green and guarded, but not unfriendly. I wonder if certain members of the Institute have been ordered to be friendly with me. It would appear that my goal of finally forming genuine friendships might be thwarted already.

The presentation begins with a slideshow. It is a celebration of pride in the Institute’s achievements arranged to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is a blatant pat on the back but so discordant with the music. Towards the end of the presentation, Dr. Lucas walks to the center of the stage. She thanks the new recruits for joining the Institute and exhorts them to work diligently to continue the Institute’s fine work. As a speech it falls flat, but thankfully it is over in a half hour. The new recruits all start to head for the reception area in the lobby. Everyone makes polite conversation as they await further direction from their department heads. They all appear wary of each other; whether because they are nervous on the first day or they are already staking out the competition is not clear. Josh comes up to me and politely asks me to join a group forming near the rear door. In the center of the group is Dr. Morehouse. I feel my first moment of relief. I don’t know if Morehouse is involved in the suspect undertakings of the Institute, but he is a brilliant researcher.

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